Tim Curry wasn’t in too many films in the 1980s, but he still appeared in a handful of projects: including two hidden delights worth seeking out.
Has there ever been an actor who conjures such a diverse set of mental images as Tim Curry? From suspender-clad extra-terrestrials and sycophantic butlers to Darkness and singing warlocks, Sir Tim of Curry has left quite the impression on many of us. But those few parts that collectively inform our idea of the man do not constitute an entire career. The fact of the matter is, he’s been in the movie business since the 1970s, which means there must be some Curry-d gems out there, just waiting to be re-discovered.
So we set about hunting down some rarely seen, classic Tim Curry-in-waiting. And what we discovered may well shock you.
Because it turns out that even incredibly talented Tim Curry types struggle to find work, particularly it appears in 1980s Britain. That doesn’t mean that we found absolutely no hidden gems whatsoever. But they, truthfully, took a lot of finding. It seems that 40 years or so ago, casting agents, directors, studios and even TV networks weren’t entirely sure what do with a super-charming English gent with a penchant for utter subversiveness. And it very much shows. From nothing parts in horror shows like Times Square to painful parts in even more painful musicals like Ligmalion, it’s clear that we should be thanking the universe for the likes of Richard O’Brien and Jim Henson.
Thankfully, it wasn’t all horrific. During our crawl through the early days of Sir Tim of Curry’s extensive back catalogue, we did find two exceedingly interesting pieces of work, although for very different reasons. The first, even given our subject, is incredibly British. In fact, in might just be the most British movie ever committed to celluloid and we’re including the entirety of Terry Thomas’ career in that statement. But even for the Britishers among us, it might take some explaining. God knows, we needed some, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves just a tad.
First, some context. If you were there, even for a small part of it, you’ll know that 80s Britain was a pretty bleak place for a lot of people. Politics, poverty and, of course, the horrendous sweaters, left many with few prospects. But this film isn’t about any of those people. Instead it focuses on the white, male, mostly upper-class boys club that is, ahem, was, the press and its very cosy relationship with those in powerful positions. Although, there’s absolutely no way you would have guessed that from the title. Labouring under the inscrutable moniker The Ploughman’s Lunch, we think it’s about the manipulation of a middle class journalist by literally every posh person he knows. But again, we’re not entirely sure.
We’re just going to quickly take some time here to explain that inscrutable title, given that it’s essentially, maybe, the crux of the entire movie. Because if you’re under certain age, or not British, it’ll mean nothing. The Ploughman’s Lunch is a cheese sandwich with spicy vegetable relish and probably won’t come with salad.
Now, at one point, if you’d asked anyone about the origin story of said sandwich, they’d likely have told you a tale of its history as a traditional farmhouse meal, a hearty lunchtime filler for the hard-working farmer. They’d be wrong though. Because all of it – recipe, name and origin story – was entirely made up by an advertising company during the 60s and swallowed whole by the public. Apparently, it was all just a fancy way to sell more cheese.
With us so far?
In the film then, Jonathan Pryce’s writer it turns out is the titular fraud, a product of the old-boy network that made him. And Tim Curry? He’s the terminally upper class university pal that’s been screwing him over for decades. It’s a small role, but if you can stomach the way-too-dense-for-its-own-good storyline, it one that’s worth hanging around for. Curry is clearly torn between having a whale of a time sending up the toffs and putting the middle classes in their place, but is also suitably embarrassed at being involved at all.
You may well be wondering why such an inscrutable and out of date movie even gets a mention, but there’s plenty here that’s out of the ordinary. For a start, it’s written by famed author Ian McEwan of Atonement fame. And then there’s how it came into being in the first place. It’s actually a TV movie, made back in the days before Lifetime ruined TV movies for everyone. But, here’s the even more notable thing: it was made by the equivalent of a local network. London Weekend Television was, at the time, London’s regional broadcaster. And it made a Tim Curry movie. That’s impressive.
If, however, you’re looking for something a little lighter, less inscrutable and let’s face it, English, then here’s the second of the films we’re chatting about. To be fair, it’s a treat whatever you’re looking for, and couldn’t be more different from The Ploughman’s Lunch. They are polar opposites, and we don’t mind admitting to being very pleasantly surprised by how good the second Curry gem actually is. Perhaps it’s thanks to the likes of his Bill Sykes in a George C Scott-starring adaptation of Oliver Twist, but when Pass The Ammo’s titles flickered on to the screen, we were so ready for a fun flick. And boy, did we ever get one.
Now, we have to admit to getting more than a little excited when it looked as though, in addition to the presence of Sir Tim of Curry, the Cohen brothers were also on board. However, it turns out the movie was written by two other men with a very similar surname. Don’t let that put you off. In addition to the alliterative trio, there’s the late, great Bill Paxton and an almost unrecognisable Annie Potts, she of “Ghostbusters, whaddya want?” fame.
Are you in yet?
If you’re still not convinced that Pass The Ammo might be worth a look, then maybe a story breakdown will change your mind. It’s just your basic tale of boy loves girl (Linda Kozlowski of Crocodile Dundee fame), girl gives a bunch of money to a televangelist, boy steals money back and then holds the entire church hostage, and the news networks broadcasts the entire thing live. That, though, barely scratches the surface of a story that takes in exploitation, political machinations, militia types and an almighty explosion. Where does Sir Tim fit into all of this wonderful chaos? You won’t be surprised to learn that he’s the lying, cheating full-body smirk of a preacher who is in no way religious – and loving every single second of the scenery-chewing dog-collar based dramedy.
If Tim Curry playing a womanising Southern televangelist doesn’t have you chomping at the bit, then Pass The Ammo has one more ace up its sleeve, and it’s a doozy. The whole hostage extravaganza is overseen by Leland Crooke’s Sheriff Rascal Lebeaux and he is a revelation. A straight-talking, seemingly accidental lawman who really just wants to go fishing, he instead finds himself adrift in a sea of political excrement he neither understands nor cares about. His only focus is keeping everyone alive, regardless of enormous explosions, and he does the job with humour, self-deprecation and a Cajun attitude that’s so rarely done well. He is a stand out character and anyone who saw ID’s The Killing Fields will know just how spot on Crooke’s portrayal is.
Granted, there are aspects of Pass The Ammo that haven’t aged that well, including perhaps its portrayal of certain aspects of law enforcement, but there’s still so much that’s relevant as hell, even in the 21st century.
From the blurred line between church and state to the increasing influence and moral ambiguity of rolling news, it’s insane how prescient this movie really was. Come for the Curry, stay for the Cajun-spiced over the top tasting menu of good old fashioned, southern fried humour. But also keep thanking the universe for the Hollywood types that get it. Because without them, there’d be no Tim Curry in films like this at all.
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